First, why am I writing in English about the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly. It is simple, I don’t have an Icelandic keyboard and it is too much of a hassle to use shortcut keys, etc. I anticipate being lazy enough about blogging for it to be counterproductive to add another hurdle. If you don’t like it… well, no one is forcing you to read this.
At any rate, I figured the upcoming constitutional assembly was an occasion to start blogging – if only to give save my colleagues here from having to listen to my rants. And since I study political institutions for a living, I figured I might offer some comments on the process and perhaps some insights about the constitutional reforms that will be debated or point to some actually research done on the effects of particular institutions.
Before I start, let me say that as political scientist I think the constitutional assembly is a fabulous idea. However, as a citizen of Iceland, I have my reservations about the process – in part, perhaps, because it is not clear to me what the process is going to be. So let’s just say I’m worried. Why is the political scientist in me so excited – well, it will be extremely interesting to see how things proceed, institutional changes are necessary to learn about the effects of political institutions and, hopefully, at the end of the day I will have some cool data to work with.
So the point of this first post is to explain why I am not endorsing or ‘liking’ any of my many friends who are running for a seat on the constitutional assembly. My reasons for doing so is not because I think they are not qualified or competent to sit on the constitutional assembly. One of the reasons is that I think the decision to elect people to the constitutional assembly is misguided. This belief has been reinforced by the large number of candidates (over 500) that are running, which renders it virtually impossible for the average voter to make an informed decision about who to vote for. I know I won’t. It is simply not reasonable to expect voters to learn about all the candidates and their qualifications. It appears likely that in the end voting decisions will be guided more by friendship on the one hand and how well known the candidate is known on the other, which may hurt the legitimacy of the assembly at the end of the day.
The approach taken by British Columbia in putting its Citizens’ Assembly together, to select members by a random drawing, seems more reasonable to me. Admittedly, drawing people at random to serve on the assembly may appear to be risky. Who knows who you might end up with? Well, on average you end up with the average Canadian – or the average Icelander in the case of Iceland – which probably isn’t a bad thing. Of course, the average Icelander will probably not be particularly qualified to write a constitutions but the important part is that they are probably aware of that fact. The important aspect of the Citizens’ Assembly, however, was that its members were essentially being sent to nearly a year of schooling to learn about electoral systems. In other words, the Citizens’ Assembly members were given the task of learning about how electoral systems work – both in terms of their mechanics (e.g., how votes are translated into seats) and their effects on a variety of things (the number of parties, policy platforms, female representation, and so on). To aid that process, the Assembly brought in a number of Canada’s foremost political scientists with expertise in elections and electoral systems. Citizens’ Assembly members were expected to put in a lot of work in order to make an informed decision.Now, it may be that the plan for the Constitutional Assembly has similar goals. Given the information provided so far I am unable to say. However, note that the Citizens’ Assembly was given 11 months to propose changes to only the electoral system. Contrast that with the two months (possibly extended for another two months) that the Constitutional Assembly is given to revamp the entire constitution. That worries me a bit.
This brings me back to the decision to potentially undesirable effects of electing the Constitutional Assembly. Looking at the candidates’ statements it quickly becomes apparent that many, if not most, of them already have quite detailed ideas about the changes that should be made to the constitutions. While I think that is quite natural in the context of campaigning for a seat (how else do you distinguish yourself?) it suggests that the Constitutional Assembly will not be a venue for rational exchange about the pros and cons of different political institutions. The fact that candidates already have a specific proposals also means that the voters will be voting on the basis of the candidates’ platforms, which, again, undermines the idea that these issues should undergo a rational debate in the assembly. In other words, the decisions may in effect be taken by voters who are uninformed (note – it doesn’t mean stupid) about how constitutions work and what the consequences of adopting different institutions are. Or do we expect the candidates to ignore their campaign promises once in office? It also raises questions about the candidates’ motives. The institutions being debates, such as electoral systems, have profound implications for political competition. Is it possible that some of the candidates argue in favor of making the country a single electoral district for (party) political reasons? While it is, of course, impossible to prevent such considerations from coming into play it makes it especially important to make sure that the Constitutional Assembly understand what the other implications of that change are.
Making the country a single electoral district would not only influence the parties’ strength in parliament, it is also likely to lead to several new parties, a more fragmented legislature, greater difficulties in forming coalition governments, which will tend to include more parties. That, in turn, may even influence policy outcomes in a predictable fashion – Bawn and Rosenbluth (2006), e.g., argue that larger coalitions lead to a larger public sector and find support for their theory using data from 17 countries over a 30 year period. In order to make a sensible recommendation, the Constitutional Assembly needs to take factors such as these into account. I am not making an argument for or against a single electoral district – I simply want to point out that institutional changes tend to have far more far-reaching effects than people tend to think.
Perhaps I am being unnecessarily pessimistic but the method of selecting the members of the assembly and its short duration do not seem particularly promising for the making of a good constitution. This rant is certainly not meant to suggest this experiment in constitutional engineering is bound to fail. Rather, it is that the key to its success is to elect members that don’t have preconceived notions about what should be done and are willing to put in extraordinary amounts of work over 2 (or hopefully 4) months to learn about the consequences of choosing particular institutions. Let me put it this way: Having earned a Ph.D. in political science and worked for nearly a decade since then researching political institutions, I am not sure I would be entirely comfortable with whipping up a new constitution in a couple of months. In addition, the committees preparing and organizing the work of the Constitutional Assembly are going to be crucial in the process by creating the right environment, i.e., providing an opportunity for the members to learn and think critically about political institutions.